A) St Matthew's


The area of St. Matthew’s parish had a number of schools in the Victorian era building an Infant School in 1871 and a Primary School in 1875, both on Norfolk Street. As Cambridge grew, more schools were built closeby with an infant school on Sturton Street in 1878, a boys’ school on York Street in 1885, followed by a girls’ school in 1887. There was even a 'Ragged School' founded in Victorian times for the very poor which is now the Brunswick Nursery on New Street.  You can still see some of the Victorian buildings today, including the original St Matthew's building in the photo with one entrance labelled for 'Girls' and one for 'Boys'.  


This history trail is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. 

Michael Rosen's Script on Victorian Schools

Cambridge was growing rapidly in Victorian times, with new workers arriving with their families needing to be housed and for children to be educated. This school was built in the Victorian era to meet this need.

The population was growing because of industrialisation and the coming of the Railway in 1845 which brought more trade and families to live and work in Cambridge.

Some poor children went to Ragged Schools, offering poor and homeless children free schooling. Charles Dickens wrote about children going to the Ragged School in London in his famous story ‘A Christmas Carol’ which he set in his own Victorian times.

There was a Ragged School in Cambridge which was founded by a charity. It was located near St Matthew's Primary School on what was then called Albert Street and opened in 1854. The building is still there today, as part of the Brunswick Nursery. There are descriptions from Victorian diarists who were fundraising for shoes and clothes and books to help support the children attending Cambridge’s Ragged School.

The Victorian Schools in Cambridge were built in response to the first Education Act past in 1870. What further increased the need for schools was the Elementary Education Act past in 1880 when it became the law that children had to attend school between the age of 5 and 10. Parents paid about 2p (2d) each week for them to attend.

In 1891 the law changed so that parents no longer had to pay for their children’s education from the age of 5 to 10. So it was now free for children to go to school. All children aged between 5 and 7 were taught in the Infant School, but from the age of 7 girls and boys were taught separately. Girls and boys had to use different entrances and had separate classrooms.

The Victorian school day started at 9 o’clock sharp. The bell would ring to tell children it was time for school as not many people had clocks or watches at home.

You needed to make sure you were on time, or you would be sent to the Headteacher’s Office for a telling off and some Headteachers hit pupils with a cane! The day always started with Assembly, which went on until 9.30am. At Assembly the Headteacher would lead all children in saying ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, singing a hymn and listening to a story from the Bible.

After Assembly it would be time to get on with your lessons. Each day lessons were based around the ‘3 Rs’:

The first lesson of the day was reading, which started straight after the register had been taken. At the start of the lesson everyone would be given a ‘reader’ by a monitor. A ’reader’ was a special book that had simple sentences for children to learn to read from. Children took it in turns to read out loud to the rest of the class, stood at the front of the classroom while the other children would follow along in their own ‘reader’.
Children learnt to write on slates using thin slate pencils, as it was much cheaper than paper. Once they were older they used copybooks, made of paper, which they wrote in with pen using ink stored in inkwells on their desks, which often dripped ink and could get very messy!

Children learnt to count using an abacus but were also expected to do a lot of mental arithmetic, meaning doing lots of sums in your head. They learnt to add, subtract, multiply and divide using this method of the abacus and practicing doing sums in your head.

Some of the curriculum was experimental and children had object lessons, where the teacher would hold up an object or picture for the class to look at, such as a rock, mineral, dead insect or dried plant to help them learn about the world around them. Then they would ask children questions about it. It was in a way an early kind of Science lesson.

Victorian Schools were very strict places and if you did not obey the teacher, concentrate hard or give the correct answer you would be severely punished. Children were often given the cane, which meant they were whacked on the bottom or hands with a special stick called a cane. Also, if you didn’t sit up straight in your lessons you could be forced to endure a horrible punishment which was to sit with a back straightener pressed into your back to make you sit up straight and concentrate!

In Victorian schools, children who were not paying attention or didn't know the answer to a question, would often be given a dunce cap to wear until the end of the lesson, or the end of the school day, as humiliation.

Do you wish your Victorian buildings were run by Victorian teachers so that you could have this experience today? I think not!

Pupil Poems and Songs

A) St Matthew's - Victorian School


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